Our opinion: Focus on the classroom

Bit by bit, in his 17 months in office, Gov. Phil Scott has broadly hinted at the need for reducing costs in Vermont's K-12 education system. That plan became more specific this week, and while the state's education spending practices surely deserve scrutiny, what matters most is how the plan might affect teachers and students in the classroom. That aspect deserves more discussion than we're hearing.

Scott has proposed using $58 million in tobacco settlement money to offset education property tax increases this year, with a series of cost-saving measures to pay back the deficit over the next five years. Those include paying for special education through district block grants, reducing the education workforce by nearly 1,000 through attrition (in order to increase the staffing ratio to 5.15-1), and instituting a statewide health care benefit for teachers, among others. In the meantime, education property tax rates would remain unchanged through 2025.

In committee hearings this week, state House and Senate committee members said they wanted more proof that the state would save $300 million over five years under Scott's plan as advertised. That's a wise request. Besides, if solid proof is available, Scott's case for his plan can only benefit from sharing it.

As for the $58 million windfall the state is receiving from the tobacco settlement, it could be used in a number of beneficial ways. Throwing it all at elimination of a tax increase doesn't seem like a smart way to do business — even if the full $300 million in anticipated savings materializes.

Furthermore, one could argue that tobacco settlement money should used to improve public health in Vermont. Keeping kids from using tobacco still matters. Expanding mental health access and treatment, access to primary care doctors and dentists, and the fight against opioid addiction could all benefit from that money.

Then, there's the biggest question of all: How would these plans affect teachers and students? For example: The governor notes that test scores have not improved dramatically despite the $1.7 billion the state spends on its K-12 system, but can quality be maintained or improved with about 1,000 fewer educators? That's a big question, and it needs to be answered honestly before we go about reducing the workforce. Efficiency runs a good deal deeper than doing more work with fewer people or moving money around.

In his appearance Monday before the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, Scott painted education funding in Vermont as a case study in inefficiency. Vermont spends $1.7 billion to educate 76,000 children, and its 4.25-1 staff to student ratio — the lowest in the nation — is not sustainable, he said. That spending has not markedly improved results or eliminated educational inequality between wealthier and disadvantaged communities, he said.

"These costs aren't translating to better outcomes because much of the cost increase is going into preserving an outdated and inefficient system or into expanding opportunities in communities that can afford tax hikes, while those districts who can't afford them get by with the basics," Scott said Monday.

"We have some schools offering a wide range of foreign languages, cutting-edge science, technology and engineering classes - not to mention, sports, drama and music programs. And we have other schools who can't offer any of these opportunities."

He also said, "It's clear to me that the structure and inefficiency of our system is eroding opportunities for our kids."

Whether Scott's plan would improve equity is another question that should be answered first. Again, that deserves due consideration and study.

The plan is likely a starting point rather than a finished product, and some of its concepts have already been discussed by the Legislature. But even though it's worth further consideration, changes this important are not worth rushing through the last few weeks of the session. It might be politically savvy to present the Legislature with an education spending plan late in the session, but crafting smart, effective policies that last requires a deliberative process.


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